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Binsey Poplars

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English Literature

What if you could write a poem that would save a forest? Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the poem “Binsey Poplars” about his despair over the chopped-down poplar trees that once lined his walks along the River Thames in the English village of Binsey. “Binsey Poplars” was published in 1918, nearly 30 years after Hopkins’s death, but in that same year, the poplars in Binsey he wrote were replanted! Unfortunately, the trees were chopped down again in 2004, but Hopkins’s uniquely heartfelt poem helped raise funds for them to be replanted. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s abundant use of rhyme and alliteration in this lyric poem deeply plants a seed of sorrow for the demolition of delicate beauty.

Binsey Poplars Poem Introduction StudySmarterAspen Poplar trees, Pixabay

“Binsey Poplars” Overview
AuthorGerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1899)
Date written1879
Date published1918
Type of poemLyric poem
Key ThemesMan and nature
Literary DevicesRhyme, alliteration, repetition, imagery, personification, enjambment

“Binsey Poplars” Background Information

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), the English poet and Jesuit priest, wrote “Binsey Poplars” in 1879 after visiting a small English town along the Thames River called Binsey. Binsey is just northwest of Oxford, where Hopkins studied at university. After over a decade, Hopkins moved back to Oxford to serve as a parish priest at St. Aloysius Church. Upon his return to the area, Hopkins noticed that the rows of poplar trees along the river he had loved had been chopped down. This poem reflects Hopkins’s sadness and dismay at people’s disregard for nature and laments the “felling,” or falling, of the beautiful trees.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry was greatly inspired by nature. He viewed nature as a reflection of God’s power and perfection. “Binsey Poplars” reflects Hopkins’s deep love for nature, sound, and musicality. Hopkins’s poetry is often characterized by its unique rhythm, rhyme, language, alliteration, assonance, repetition, imagery, and themes about God and nature.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Concept of Inscape and Selves

Gerard Manley Hopkins is known for creating his own words or unique uses of words in his poetry. Hopkins’s idea of inscape and invention of the word selves influence nearly all of his poems.

Inscape is Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea that everything in the world has a unique design that gives it an individual identity. Hopkins frequently uses the term selves as a verb that means to enact or express this individual identity.

Ultimately, Gerard Manley Hopkins saw the individuality and design of all things as a reflection of God, their creator. Hopkins believed everything in the universe had an individual design and purpose given to it by God and that things in themselves had a desire to proclaim or enact this inner identity, reflecting God’s glory.

“Binsey Poplars” Summary

“Binsey Poplars” is written almost like an elegy or an expression of grief for the dead. Gerard Manley Hopkins dedicated the poem with “felled 1879” to address the chopped-down trees. He begins the poem with the term of endearment, “My aspens dear,” to set the tone of a personalized lament, personifying the trees as if they are a deceased loved one.

Hopkins contrasts his affection for the trees with harsh word choices and imagery describing what has been done to them. He repeatedly says that the trees were “quelled,” meaning their lives were put to an end with force, and emphasizes how they have all fallen, “Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun / All felled, felled, all are felled” (2–3). The poet compares the falling trees to an ordered, marching army sent into battle to die “following folded rank / Not spared, not one” (4–5).

The poem’s image of the stark trees lying in lines on the ground like dead bodies is contrasted with the pleasant summery scene of trees moving in the breeze, forming playful shadows on the river bank. Hopkins writes that not a single tree “that dandled a sandalled / Shadow that swam or sank / On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank” was spared (6–8). The imagery of a person’s foot forming a shadow as they bounce their sandaled foot up and down creates an idea of delicacy. It further personifies the way the trees move to form delicate shadows that appear on the water. The length of the last line in the stanza suggests that it was a very long, seemingly endless row of trees that were “felled” along the river.

Binsey Poplars Summary StudySmarterA tree’s shadow in the river, Pixabay

The second stanza of the poem shifts from the speaker’s lament to a reflection on humanity’s disregard for nature. The opening lines of the stanza, “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew,” echo the words of Jesus Christ as he was on the cross (9–0). In Luke chapter 23, verse two of the Bible, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do,” as he looks down from the cross at the distressing scene of soldiers gambling for his garments. Through this biblical allusion, Hopkins points to the fact that people are unaware of the gravity of their actions in killing something so precious and powerful.

Hopkins uses personification to suggest the trees are like a thin, delicate woman, “Since country is so tender / To touch her being so slender” (12–13). Giving nature a feminine body makes the “hacking” and “hewing” seem all the more atrocious. Hopkins further emphasizes the horror of this destruction by describing messing with nature as the unsettling prick of an eyeball. He carries this idea of a needle into the phrase “Even where we mean / To mend her we end her” to show how delicate nature is and how quickly humans can destroy it (16–17).

The poem builds on the frightening ease of human destruction with the lines, “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. / Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve / Strokes of havoc unselve / The sweet especial scene” (19–22). The poet says that “after-comers,” or now people visiting where the Binsey poplars once were, will never know their beauty because in a few chops, they were “felled.” Hopkins uses the phrase “sweet especial scene” to emphasize nature’s innocence and preciousness and to reflect his nostalgia for the trees as he drifts out of the poem with the recollecting repetition “Rural scene, a rural scene, / Sweet especial rural scene” (23–24). The poem leaves readers with a “sweet” and pleasant “rural scene” in mind to remind readers of nature’s beauty and innocence.

“Binsey Poplars” Full Poem

Line‘Binsey Poplars’ Full Poem Notes
felled 1879The poem’s dedication is to the trees that were “felled” or cut down in 1879
12345678
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
aspens: tall, thin poplar trees that blow a lot in the breezequelled: put an end to with force, stamped outdandled: to move up and down in a playful way, to bouncesandalled: wearing sandals
9101112131415161718192021222324
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
delve: dig, excavatehew: to cut or chop with an axrack: to torture or cause extreme painhavoc: destruction, chaos, disorderunselve: a term coined by Hopkins meaning to remove one’s identityespecial: special, exceptional

Think about how the visual shape of the poem might resemble its subject.

“Binsey Poplars” Analysis

Let’s look at the form of the poem, its themes, and its literary devices.

“Binsey Poplars” Analysis of Form

What type of poem is “Binsey Poplars?”

“Binsey Poplars” is a lyric poem split into two stanzas: one eight-line stanza and one 16-line stanza. Gerard Manley Hopkins uses this first-person, rhythmic, short-form poem to allow readers to feel how deeply he was affected by the poplars being chopped down.

A lyric poem is a short poem written in the first person that expresses personal feelings and emotions. Lyric poetry has rhythmic or songlike elements.

“Binsey Poplars” Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of the first stanza of the poem is ABACBACC. The rhymes help establish a flowing continuity that mimics the “river & wind-wandering” bank. Though the lines of the poem have significantly different lengths, the end rhymes create harmony and stability.

The end rhymes of the first stanza:

1. quelled–A

2. sun–B

3. felled–A

4. rank–C

5. one–B

6. sandalled–A

7. sank–C

8. bank–C

The second stanza is double the length of the first, and its rhyme scheme is irregular. However, it uses many rhyming couplets which tie together certain phrases in a unified thought or picture.

A rhyming couplet is a pair of two rhyming lines of verse typically of similar length.

“Since country is só tender,To touch, her being só slender,That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all” (12–15)

The entire poem consists of only three periods, so Gerard Manley Hopkins uses rhyming couplets to help bind images within a long trail of words. While the lines in the example are all part of an extended simile, each couplet represents a distinct image. The rhymes “tender” and “slender” paint a picture of the tree as a thin, delicate woman, while the rhymes “ball” and “all” create the image of an eyeball being pricked with a needle. Both images appeal to the reader’s sense of touch in contrasting ways: the first in a positive, pleasant way and the second in a negative, almost repulsive manner. Hopkins uses this contrast to explain that the trees are so delicate that even harming them slightly would be a cruel and barbaric act.

“Binsey Poplars” Meter

The meter of the poem is Hopkins’s characteristic sprung rhythm. Hopkins uses this flexible form of meter to mimic a more natural form of speech. It allows him to create lines of varying lengths and emphasize consecutive syllables, which is crucial to “Binsey Poplars.”

Sprung rhythm is an irregular form of meter coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins to mimic more natural patterns of speech. Sprung rhythm counts the stressed syllables in each line, but the number of unstressed syllables following each stressed syllable can vary. Thus, lines can vary greatly in the number of syllables they contain, and there can be consecutive stressed syllables, unlike the alternation pattern of iambic rhythm.

“My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, – this line follows iambic pentameter
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, – this line follows a trochaic rhythm
All felled, felled, are all felled” (1–3) – this line follows sprung rhythm

While iambic and trochaic rhythms have a steady, bouncy sound due to the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, sprung rhythm allows Gerard Manley Hopkins to use elements of different forms of meter to achieve a more natural, fluid sound.

“Binsey Poplars” Themes

Below are the themes of the poem. Can you think of others?

Man and Nature

The themes of “Binsey Poplars” surround the relationship between man and nature. On one level, there is the poet’s personal relationship with nature, and on another level, there is humanity’s uncaring disposition towards nature.

The relationship between the speaker and nature is one of great admiration and reverence for its beauty. Gerard Manley Hopkins vividly personifies the poplars as a woman. This is seen in his elegy-like address to the poplars, his use of the pronoun “her” to describe them, and his description of the trees being “slender” and” tender” to touch. The poet uses this personification to emphasize how precious, valuable, and delicate nature is. He wants us to feel its pain and protect it.

The poet then expresses how upset he is with humanity for being so cruel and uncaring towards these trees that have been chopped down. He uses forceful words such as “quelled,” “hack,” “hew,” and “wrack” to describe the chopping down of trees as a violent form of torture. Hopkins proposes that man is a danger to nature because people can chop down a tree in a few strokes so nonchalantly. This poem calls for sympathy, appreciation, and preservation of nature, which the speaker feels is lacking among people.

“Binsey Poplars” Literary Devices

Let us take a look at the literary devices.

Alliteration

“Of a fresh and following folded rank” (4)

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry is famous for its frequent use of alliteration or the repetition of letters or sounds at the beginning of words in a phrase. The alliteration carries the reader through the phrase and helps establish Hopkins’s sprung rhythm, as the stresses are inclined to fall on the “f” sounds.

Repetition

“All felled, felled, are all felled” (3)

Hopkins also uses repetition in “Binsey Poplars” to emphasize his message and create a dramatic effect. In this example, the repetition of the word “felled” suggests that many trees were cut down one after another, and it mimics the repetitive sound of an ax as it chops wood.

Enjambment

“Shadow that swam or sank

On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.” (7–8)

Hopkins uses very few periods in his poetry. He frequently uses enjambment as one phrase of poetry flows into the next. In “Binsey Poplars,” the enjambment creates a flowing or winding effect that mimics the winding river bank that is seemingly endless. The poet suggests the length of the winding river bank through the long line describing it, which stands out from the rest. Emphasizing the length of the riverbank helps the reader understand that there were a seemingly endless number of trees cut down.

Binsey Poplars - Key Takeaways

  • “Binsey Poplars” was written by the English priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1879.
  • It was written about poplar trees that were chopped down along the River Thames in a town called Binsey.
  • The poet expresses great sorrow for the “felled” or chopped-down trees.
  • “Binsey Poplars” is a lyric poem that focuses on the theme of man and nature.
  • The poem is written in Gerard Manly Hopkins’s characteristic sprung rhythm.
  • “Binsey Poplars” uses literary devices such as personification, alliteration, repetition, rhyme, and enjambment.

Binsey Poplars

The significance of “Binsey Poplars” is that it is a poem lamenting poplar trees that were chopped down in the English town of Binsey along the River Thames. Due to the popularity of the poem, the poplars were later replanted.

“Binsey Poplars” is a lyric poem, which means it is a short poem that has a song-like quality and is told in the first-person to express personal feelings and emotions.

“Binsey Poplars” are trees located in the English Village of Binsey, which is northwest of Oxford, along the River Thames. 

The subject matter of the poem “Binsey Poplars” is the author’s sorrow and outrage over the chopped down poplar trees along the River Thames in the town of Binsey, England. 

“Binsey Poplars” was written by the English Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Final Binsey Poplars Quiz

Question

Who is the author of ‘Binsey Poplars’?

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Answer

Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Question

What type of poem is ‘Binsey Poplars?’

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Answer

lyric poem

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Question

What is the name for Hopkins’s characteristic type of meter that is used in ‘Binsey Poplars’?

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Answer

Sprung rhythm

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Question

What is the main theme of ‘Binsey Poplars’?

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Answer

Man and nature

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Question

Which of the following is not a literary device used in ‘Binsey Poplars’?

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Answer

Allegory

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Question

How would you describe the poet’s response to the trees being chopped down?

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Answer

very upset

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Question

Which of the following does the poet compare the trees to?

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Answer

A woman

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Question

What does “felled” mean?

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Answer

chopped down

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Question

What is the final image the poet leaves you with?

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Answer

A rural scene

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Question

What is the poet’s attitude towards the trees being chopped down?

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Answer

It is an atrocity, or extremely cruel act

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